DANTALA, THE CAT WITH NINE LIVES: A Review of Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday

Title: Born on a Tuesday
Author: Elnathan John
Publisher: Cassava Republic
Number of pages: 261
Year of publication: 2015
Category: Fiction

The problem with such books as Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday is that they set higher standards for debut works thereby making things a little bit difficult for aspiring and yet-to-be-published writers. Not a lot of writers can boast of the ability to write in English in a way that readers keep imagining they are dealing with a Hausa story.
It is hard to read the opening pages of Born on a Tuesday and not think of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It is hard to not be enraptured by such a complex story narrated in such simple words and sentences. It is hard to not fall in love at first sight with Dantala, whose innocence and sincerity forces the reader to discharge and acquit him of whatever crime he ought to have been pronounced guilty of. There are such characters– in literature, movies and in real life– whose radiancies outshine whatever flaws they are gifted or rather accursed with, e.g. Okonkwor of Things Fall Apart, Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean and Queen Elizabeth 1 of England.
Even as a tragic story, Born on a Tuesday is laced with sufficient humour to make the reader chuckle amidst tears. At one time, Dantala tickles the reader’s sides when he admits that

“… I have never memorized anything without a whip in front of me. As I start reading, it feels different. I look up to be sure there is no one holding a whip over my head… (p 40).

Several other times, he begs God’s forgiveness either before or after entertaining evil thoughts or desires. This comes as no surprise to those readers that are already familiar with Elnathan John’s satirical works a lot of which can be found in his blog.
Having lost his friends at Bayan Layi, fate drives Dantala into the arms of Sheikh Jamal, the Imam of the mosque in the motor park, who becomes his surrogate father and gives him a new life just as Mr. Brownlow does to Oliver Twist. From their first meet the Sheikh senses that Dantala is exceptional, being able to read both Hausa and Arabic fluently, unlike most other almajirai. Before long, Dantala rises to become the Sheikh’s personal assistant and then his successor, even managing the organisation’s bank account. Dantala’s zeal for learning will eventually drive him into keeping a notebook in which to enter new English words and their meanings, and also pen down his thoughts and activities.
The Sheikh is everything that Dantala would want to be– industrious, generous and empathetic. His pacifist nature, owing to a deep knowledge of the true teachings of Islam, leads to a fallout with his second-in-command, Malam Abdul-Nur, who goes ahead to form his own radical Islamic movement, the Mujahideen. The Sheikh is also highly principled. Once, during one of his chats with Dantala, he states that

“… even now, there are people whose money I cannot take because they tie obligations to it. I can take your money, but you can never control me. If Alhaji Usman were to do something I thought was evil today, I would be the first to condemn it” (p 168).

But some way down the road, we learn from Dantala that:

“Alhaji only gives us a third of what he announces. The comey comes through his company, which makes a payment to us by cheque or by bank transfer. I then withdraw two-thirds of the amount and give it back to him in cash. Then we multiply all our expenses by three. So even though what we spent on the building of the school was eighteen million, our papers read fifty-four million. I do not know how to feel about this” (p 211).

This causes the reader to wonder if the Sheikh can claim to be ignorant that money laundering is a financial crime, considering that he is a highly educated man.
However, seeing that the Sheikh is a good man, the reader is bound to rule out his vices and rather attribute them to the doctrine of tolerating a lesser evil for the greater good.
The book reads like a full cycle. At the last page it begins to appear most likely that Dantala will end up where he began– on the road as an almajiri, seeing that he never gets the chance to learn any trade nor acquire a formal (Western) education, even though he has been thinking of doing just that since after his aunt warned that he would be out in the street again if anything happens to the Sheikh. A lot of readers might not be comfortable with the thought that the Sheikh never really pulls Dantala out of Almajiri-hood; that he only him converted him from a street urchin to a domestic hand, more or less; . For as long as the Sheikh lived, the lad never got to set foot beyond the lobby of the former’s residence. This says a lot.
But when Dantala finally loses the Sheikh, the reader has no doubt that he will be fine, seeing that he has always been a survivor. Repeatedly, from the very first chapter to the last, Dantala keeps slipping from death’s jaws either by chance or providence. At one time, after escaping a fatal accident, he thinks he didn’t die in the lorry because “I quickly realised my sin and said astaghfirullah [Allah forgive me] many times (p 21).
Born on a Tuesday satisfies both ‘Arts for arts’ sake’ and ‘Arts as a mirror of the society’. On the one hand, it is simply about the boy Dantala and the world around him; on the other hand, it is the portrait of the development and consequences of religious extremism and political thuggery specifically in Northern Nigeria.

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